SBS 301 Cultural Diversity/Prof. Koptiuch         Fall 2015       Personal Memory Ethnographies

Crystal Cespedes

My First Gaze into Racism and a Peso of Shame

         During my English class in the 7th grade my teacher passed around a peso from Mexico, which she had left over from her summer vacation. She thought speaking about her summer vacation in Mexico would be a great way to identify with the students. I’m sure she assumed that there must be first generation immigrants who came from Mexico in her class. She even made it a point during class to ask those students to raise their hands. I was the last student to be passed the peso. When the coin was passed to me she asked, “How much is it worth.” I was taken back. “What?” I responded. She repeated the same question. I replied, “I was born in the city of Orange and lived in Orange County all my life.” I had never been to Mexico. I don’t even know how to speak Spanish. Why I was so agitated and felt shame when my teacher asked about the worth of her peso?       

         Being mistaken as an immigrant from Mexico in my 7th grade classroom has stuck out as the starting point in my personal timeline of racist incidents. It is sad that I have encounter so many that I have a visual and imaginary timeline in my mind. This was the first time I realized my race was an actual issue to someone. By issue I mean racism. This was the first time I felt my shame for not looking American enough.

         It was the first week of 7th grade and I was living in Garden Grove, California. Home of Disneyland, the Anaheim Angels and the Crystal Cathedral, Orange County also is home to a large population of Hispanic and Asian immigrants. My 7th grade school is located in Santa Ana, California. My school had just been re-opened because of the large enrollment of middle school students. “Your beautiful bronze complexion,” the teacher replied. “Your dark complexion, aren’t your parents from Mexico?” she continued. “Nope,” I said coldly. She gave me a glare as if Hispanics do not know how to take a complement. She even said during class that people react differently toward complements and it is because the Spanish language does not always translate into English properly. She did not see how mistaking a student for a Mexican immigrant could be harming to her self-esteem or might ostracize the student. The teacher had singled me out because I was darker and a completely different skin tone than everyone else in class. I am mixed, multi-racial. My father’s mother is Spanish and his father was Bolivian and Chinese. My mother is Mexican and Italian which makes me …confused.    

         New white boards had been installed in my 7th grade classroom. My teacher only used new black dry erase markers on the board. The smell of a dry erase marker transports me back into that specific classroom. The smell still makes my stomach queasy. The shame of being mistaken as a Mexican National and as an immigrant in my 7th grade classroom has stayed with me. I go so far as to always add born in California when people ask me what my nationality is. I get the same queasy sensation in my stomach until this day when I feel any shame.

         My 7th grade teacher viewed me differently than the other Hispanics in class because of my darker complexion. This was my first eye opener on racism. Americans are racist; this notion blew my mind. My teacher, an educator, a racist; it went against every song I learned in Kindergarten and every peace assembly we had to sit through during elementary school. She was unaware of her vocabulary and how it made her students feel. She was unaware of her racism. Plus, middle school is a very hard time in a student’s life.

         Gazing back I can only wonder how many other students had their self-esteem crushed by this teacher. This was my earliest encounter with racism and in the years to come I would continue to encounter in my life many different forms of it. She never said out loud how much of a negative stereotype Mexican immigrants have in California. Her students could read her nonverbal cues about Hispanics and immigrants when she wrote the daily writing assignments on the board, which came from the local news. She didn’t notice how her nose scrunched up when one of the Hispanics students stood beside her desk to ask a question about an assignment. She did not do this for the single African American student or the five White students that were also in my class. She seemed to have labeled me as “difficult.” On my report card she had written that I needed to work my social skills and have less of an attitude for the rest of the school year. 

         In 1992 the Los Angeles Riots had erupted the year before my incident occurred in 1993. I remember watching the media coverage and seeing how hostile my step-father and his family had become. My step-father and his family are African-American. Fast forward a year later with me sitting in my desk and a wave of heated blanked my body when my teacher asked me if I knew how much her peso from Mexico was worth. I knew what hostility was now. No longer puzzled as to how race could be an issue in the 1990s. I was 13 years old and the Equal Employment Opportunity Act passed in 1972 wasn’t just a topic of history that we were covering in class. It did not resonate for me why this act had to be passed and how this act was passed to help me or my family. The minorities that we are. It does now.

         I felt embarrassed and small in my 7th grade class. Covering topics on equality in this class setting felt generic. I could not ask question when I felt my teacher answers were not genuine.  I could tell by her verbal and nonverbal cues she wasn’t a social reformist. I had never felt like this before in a school setting. I had moved around a lot so I went to many schools. I was not shy and despite having attended five schools by the time I was in the 7th grade, I was always in the gifted and talented program. This teacher’s comment wiped out my self-esteem. Not only was my self-esteem at its lowest point, I was angry and this was only the beginning of the school year. 

Fast forward to 2006 when millions of people protested against anti-immigrant legislation across the country. Sixteen years later I realized there was a racism issue and it still has not been addressed. So much so, my fellow citizen as well as immigrants had to protest. Again this American is not just a country for the free, it is an idea for freedom. Yes, that is how as an American I view my country. Yet, its own citizens have to protest against anti-immigrant legislation, including me. What happened to the more generous and just viewpoints that led our government to offer amnesty to 2.7 million immigrants for citizenship in 1986?

         What happened is that California, New Mexico, Texas and Hawaii now have minorities as their major population and our citizens now have many faces of color. The changing face of American is no longer white, but that of minorities of color. This scares the white privileged faces of America. My government set aside funding to minorities for job contracts the year I was born. My country was so aware of how white privileged Americans were hired for contracts that in 1980, the Supreme Court ruled 15% of public funding should go to minority contracts. How can the land of the free and home of the brave not have equal opportunities for all races?

How does a 13 years girl filled with shame for not looking American enough believe in social reform and equality when her teacher can barely tolerate her and her Hispanic classmates? Toleration is at best how minorities are treated. Not believing we are equal. Not seeing the beauty in our different shades of skin tone and ethnic features. Not getting over the shame of being mistaken as an immigrant in our own country, a country that constantly blames Mexican immigrants for crime, drugs, and depleting government funding of welfare and health care programs. Being tolerated is not being equal. Equality is not something this 35 year old woman can teach her nephews and nieces when they are faced with the shame of being a minority. This country can only teach its people tolerance and not equality.

Return to Personal Memory Ethnographies homepage